THE BLOG
02/11/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

Strength Training Our Memories

This morning, the thought popped into my head, "I'm here for a reason." And, these days, that's an unusual affirmation for a modern philosopher to have spike into his consciousness, unless it comes, like mine did, two seconds before such an additional word as, "Coffee." I was standing at the kitchen counter, and had become unsure of why I'd walked into the room. Ah. There was a reason after all. I refilled my cup.

I'm 61 years old, not so advanced in age by current standards, but old enough to have certain concerns begin to tweak me now and then. Three years ago, it hit me that I wasn't in the best physical shape I could be in. I wasn't as strong as I could be for my age, at the time, of 58. So, I began to increase my regular workouts from four or five days a week to, normally, every day, and from 20 minutes of exercise to about two hours, for the first year of change, and then down to about an hour a day, after that, which I've maintained since. That time includes some cardio, but it's focused mainly on weights. The biggest change of all was going from the toning and maintenance sessions that were my habit in past years, to real strength training, hitting much heavier challenges and, sometimes, crazy sets of high repetitions, to increase endurance as well as power. Now, as a result, I'm the strongest I've ever been. The improvement has been dramatic.

But then, during one demanding workout not long ago, it occurred to me that I'm devoted to physical fitness, but what about mental fitness? I was doing, really, nothing for that. People work on crossword puzzles and download brain games from the Internet all the time, but I was just assuming that the mental side of things in my life was fine.

As a philosopher, my normal work involves reading and writing and thinking through the most puzzling enigmas of the human condition, hatching new ideas, and analyzing old concepts from new angles, so you might imagine that this alone would keep me mentally fit. And in many ways, it does. "But, what about the function of memory?" I asked myself.

How often do we adults ever memorize anything? When was the last time you did? Was it in 10th grade? Or college? And now, if someone tells you the name of a good book or a website or gives you a phone number, you may desperately look around for somewhere to write it down. Or you ask, "Could you text me that?"

What's the single most common complaint in old age? If you can't remember having read this before, then likely you've already got it -- a problem with memory. It's nearly universal at a certain point in life. So, I decided to start working on this whole issue by memorizing lots of stuff. Maybe it's like a muscle, I surmised. Use it or lose it. I had to try whatever I could to hold off the depredations of decline, or at least mitigate the magnitude of the threat.

Now, in principle, flexing memory and exercising it well could be done with any content. I could memorize listings in a phone book, if I could find a phone book. I could commit to memory Miley Cyrus lyrics. Anything would work. But I decided to start with something more serious: Shakespearean soliloquies. Why not stock my mind with culturally significant passages that might give me something deeper to ponder, and that could possibly spark new philosophical revelations, as well?

So I started with a short passage from Hamlet, containing fewer than 100 words. That took about two weeks to master, devoting a few minutes a day to the effort. It actually looked impossible before it just looked hard, and it finally yielded, over time, to relentless effort. "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth," and so on. Yeah: for sure. It was surprisingly hard work. I'd practice it aloud in the car, whenever I was going anywhere alone, and then occasionally spring it on someone at the gym, explaining what I was doing and why. Everyone seemed to think it was a great idea, and my workout partner soon joined me in tackling the next chosen passage, the famous "To be or not to be" reflection, also in Hamlet, which is a lot longer than you may remember, and if that's so, you should probably do what I'm doing. More than 200 words in this new challenge now seemed way past any reasonable limit for a guy my age, but I tried, and I tried, day after day. And, breaking it down into two and four line units, I finally nailed it, with meaning, this time in about a week or so, given a little work on it each day.

Then, when I could do the prince's meditation on the troubles of life with real feeling, I picked my next and biggest challenge yet: "The Saint Crispin's Day Speech" from Henry V, a passage of more than 400 words. Google it. It was twice the length of my last goal -- and if I'd thought the previous passages looked and seemed impossible at first to memorize, this one was a whale. But it's very inspirational. The year is 1415 AD. The English army is in France and has to fight a foe that outnumbers them, five to one. King Henry is about to lead the lads into battle. His cousin wishes they had more men. Harry says that the fewer of them there are, the greater share of honor everyone will receive as a result of what they do together. Then he really gets cranked up about the huge amount of honor that's at stake, and orders his cousin to actually send home any men whose hearts aren't in it. And finally, he turns and speaks to the men, and paints them a vivid picture of what it's going to be like in the future for any of them who fights and makes it home safe -- how he'll always remember this day, and be revered above any who were not there. It's a rousing talk, and includes the now famous phrase, "band of brothers." I printed it out and began to tackle it. And I got it nailed. Now, I can whip up the emotions of otherwise forlorn and frightened imaginary troops on every trip I make to the grocery store. By the time I'm parking the car, the men are all shouting acclamations of enthusiastic agreement in a thunderous frenzy, eager for the battle to come.

It's easy for me, as a result of all this, to think that my memory has become an awesome machine of incredible power. So, what happened just the other day took me by surprise. During my usual workout at the gym, my strength-training partner and I were trying out our Shakespeare on each other, with success. After I had recited the long Saint Crispin's Day Speech without a flaw, he praised my prodigious memory. And then I knew, in a flash of humility, that I had to confess that, during the hour's exercise, I had looked down, on five different occasions, at what I knew to be my recently stopped workout wristwatch, to check the time. I didn't just slip up and forget and from habit do it once. I forgot five times, basically once every 12 minutes, although I couldn't tell that from the watch. Fortunately, there was a clock on the wall. So that's my prodigious memory.

In a recent bit of medical research on this valuable and vulnerable mental ability, it turns out that, before tackling the passages from Shakespeare, I was already doing one of the best things for keeping our memories sharp -- vigorous physical exercise every day. Who knew? But, still, I plan to keep up doing both. We do what we can. And, still, age does what it must. Nevertheless, I think, our efforts, despite their eventual destiny, in the end, are noble, and necessary, and pay many dividends along the way.

Now when I walk into the gym, each day of this new year, I try to remember that I'm here for a reason, and actually, two: To do what I can to strengthen the body, yes, but also the vital functions of the mind. Exercise isn't magic. And it won't work forever. But I keep it up, remembering some words that an older man once said in a less than rousing effort to acknowledge the benefits of meditation: "I guess it beats sittin' doing nothin'."